Monday: April 29, 2013
Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Constantine Cavafy, and the 80th anniversary of the death of . . . Constantine Cavafy. I can think of many better ways to celebrate one’s 70th birthday than dying on it, but it does make for a nice symmetry.
So where’s the party? I have not seen the doubly significant date mentioned on any of the many websites that I read, some of which are devoted to literature or culture in general. Even www.cavafy.com, “the official website of the Cavafy archive”, and The Cavafy Museum in Alexandria website have nothing posted for the day.
Friday: January 8, 2010
My Oxford Spanish Dictionary, third edition on CD-Rom, arrived today, 65% off in their Christmas sale. The first word I looked up, ‘navecilla’, was not in it. It must mean ‘little ship’, but it was disconcerting not being able to check. In one 66-line poem of Quevedo, I found two other words that were entirely missing, along with several more that seem to have changed their meanings in the last 400 years. ‘Avariento’ must mean ‘greedy’, but I still don’t know what ‘dina’ means, or even whether it is a noun, adjective, or verb. It’s obviously not a ‘dyne’ (unit of power), the only modern meaning, or a small-d ‘Dinah’, and there is no obvious English or Latin cognate, as with ‘avariento’. Very frustrating. Is there some other Spanish-English dictionary that includes ‘obs.’ or ‘arch.’ words used by well-known older authors?
Monday: November 9, 2009
Prufrock Press “is the nation’s leading resource for gifted and talented children and gifted education programs”. I hope the name is not a literary allusion. Gifted and talented children have enough trouble with accusations of nerdliness and worse: they really don’t need to be associated with J. Alfred Prufrock, who couldn’t decide whether he dared to eat a peach or whether he should “wear white flannel trousers and walk upon the beach”.
Wednesday: May 13, 2009
Emily Dickinson at her coldest and clearest:
The heart asks pleasure first,
And then, excuse from pain;
And then, those little anodynes
That deaden suffering;
And then, to go to sleep;
And then, if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor,
The liberty to die.
Sunday: May 25, 2008
Notes from my reading of Book II:
1. Again the passage that most struck me was a classicizing bit, a simile describing Satan’s journey through Chaos (943-50):
As when a Gryfon through the Wilderness
With winged course ore Hill or moarie Dale,
Persues the Arimaspian, who by stelth
Had from his wakeful custody purloind
The guarded Gold: So eagerly the Fiend
Ore bog or steep, through strait, rough, dense, or rare,
With head, hands, wings, or feet persues his way,
And swims or sinks, or wades, or creeps, or flyes:
This has some resemblance rhetorically to 7.501-3, though the latter is more neatly laid out in threes:
Earth in her rich attire
Consummat lovly smil’d; Aire, Water, Earth,
By Fowl, Fish, Beast, was flown, was swum, was walkt
Milton does not mention that the Arimaspians were traditionally one-eyed: did he not think it important, or assume that his readers already knew? ‘Moarie’ is not in the Shorter O.E.D. or www.dictionary.com, and must be a form of ‘moory’, meaning ‘marshy, fenny’.
2. The account of the origins of Sin and Death, featuring rape, incest, head-birth, and bestial transmogrification, manages to outdo Hesiod in gruesomeness.
3. It’s interesting that the music of the fallen angels (546-51) is epic or panegyric, sung “With notes Angelical to many a harp” about themselves and their deeds. The effect is rather Homeric.
Saturday: May 24, 2008
I started a new job two months ago, and now teach part-time at two different high schools. Oddly, I seem to have more spare time for reading now, partly because I have to get to work at the new school at 7:00 to avoid rush-hour traffic, but don’t meet any of my students until 8:15. In the last month, I’ve read half a dozen novels and the first seven books of Paradise Lost, a work I had not read since college. (That would have been 1972 or 1973.) It seems appropriate to blog some desultory thoughts on the work, perhaps three per book. I’ll write about the novels tomorrow.
1. The passage in Book I that most struck me as particularly worth quoting was the description of Mammon, principal architect in Heaven and now in Hell (738-51):
Nor was his name unheard or unador’d
In ancient Greece; and in Ausonian land
Men calld him Mulciber; and how he fell
From Heav’n, they fabl’d, thrown by angry Jove
Sheer ore the Crystal Battlements: from Morn
To Noon he fell, from Noon to dewy Eve,
A Summers day; and with the setting Sun
Dropd from the Zenith like a falling Starr,
On Lemnos th’ Aegaean Ile: thus they relate,
Erring; for hee with this rebellious rout
Fell long before; nor aught availd him now
To have built in Heav’n high Towrs; nor did he scape
By all his Engins, but was headlong sent
With his industrious crew to build in Hell.
2. The only non-famous line that was particularly familiar after all these years was 307:
Busiris and his Memphian Chivalrie
3. Right from the start, I’ve found the poem entertaining, sometimes even hypnotic, but also insubstantial: far more words than matter. So far from being a peer of Homer, Vergil, and Dante, Milton seems a poet in roughly the same class as Statius or Claudian. Is this unfair? He seems to do a mediocre job of justifying the ways of God to men.
Sunday: December 11, 2005
Expectation of the Vulgar is more drawne, and held with newnesse, then goodnesse; wee see it in Fencers, in Players, in Poets, in Preachers, in all, where Fame promiseth any thing; so it be new, though never so naught, and depraved, they run to it, and are taken.
(Timber, or Discoveries, Oxford edition, Volume VIII, 576)
Thursday: October 20, 2005
James Lileks finds some coded Latin on a website, but concludes that it must be gibberish, since the online Latin translator couldn’t handle it. That just shows how stupid machines are. It’s not quite classical Latin, but close enough to translate. Lileks’ text is also missing the first letter — easy enough when it’s written in Morse code and the letter is an I. It should read:
IN GIRUM IMUS NOCTE ET CONSUMIMUR IGNI.
Classical Latin would spell the second word GYRUM and the last one IGNE, but this is good Mediaeval (aka Vulgar) Latin. It means “At night we go into a gyre/whirl/circle/ring and are consumed by fire”. That’s not a very clear or satisfying meaning, but better than average for palindromes. With one more syllable at the beginning, it would be a dactylic hexameter: again, that’s probably the best meter we can expect from a palindrome. The version with ECCE (”look!”) inserted after NOCTE fulfills (barely) the minimum requirements for a hexameter, but the meaning is even clunkier.
This site has some interesting, but not entirely accurate, information on the words (click on Palindromes – it’s the first one on the right), plus much more of interest to Latinists. I don’t see anything macaronic about the line, and suspect that a moth would be at least as likely as a mayfly to fly in circles and be consumed by fire. I wonder if this gyre has anything to do with the one Yeats asked someone or other to perne in in “Sailing to Byzantium”.
Tuesday: October 4, 2005
From Charles Johnston, Selected Poems (London, 1985):
Footnote to Housman
To reach the top flight as a poet
you must write an unreadable work,
so obscure that your friends will forgo it
and all but the bravest will shirk.
Then the few who have read it, begrudging
the waste of exertion entailed,
will claim it’s essential for judging
how far you’ve succeeded or failed.
From admiring their own persistence
they’ll come to admiring the screed
and claim that it stands at a distance
from works that are easy to read;
while the reader who skipped it is able
to pretend he enjoyed it himself,
and leave it about on his table,
and show it with pride on his shelf.
It was Housman who worst neglected
the force of this critical rule,
with result that his faults are detected
by infants who read him at school,
while we who admire him, defenceless,
lack some pompier twaddle to quote
and can find nothing prolix or senseless
to claim as the best thing he wrote.
To learn from the fault he committed
is the first of poetical cares.
Lucid intervals may be admitted,
but be lucid the whole time who dares.
I suspect that Johnston chose the limericious meter to reflect his anti-pretentious meaning. In the second-to-last stanza, ‘pompier’ is a pompous (and French) word for ‘pompous’.
(An hour or two later: I’d forgotten that I’d already posted this on July 28th, 2003, but I suppose it’s worth a second look.)
Friday: April 29, 2005
The first two are well-known, but I’m particularly (perversely?) fond of the third. I ran across it years ago in a four-volume edition of Belloc’s verse, and have been looking for it ever since. The weblogger who calls herself The Rat recently quoted the second poem, which reminded me to look for the third once again. I was delighted to find that it has finally turned up on the web, though I don’t much care for the I Love Poetry site where I found it (too cutesy for my taste, even if the snuggly polar bears would make an excellent wedding card for one particular blogger):
I. Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585), from Sonnets pour Hélène:
Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
Assise aupres du feu, devidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous esmerveillant:
Ronsard me celebroit du temps que j’estois belle.
Lors, vous n’aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Desja sous le labeur à demy sommeillant,
Qui au bruit de mon nom ne s’aille resveillant,
Benissant vostre nom de louange immortelle.
Je seray sous la terre et fantaume sans os:
Par les ombres myrteux je prendray mon repos:
Vous serez au fouyer une vieille accroupie,
Regrettant mon amour et vostre fier desdain.
Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain:
Cueillez d´s aujourd’huy les roses de la vie.
If you can’t handle 16th-century French, there are English translations here (Humbert Wolfe) and here (Anthony Weir — scroll down past the Albanian stuff).
II. William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), “When you are old”:
When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face among a crowd of stars.
III. Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), “The Fragment”:
Towards the evening of her splendid day
Those who are little children now shall say
(Finding this verse), ‘Who wrote it, Juliet?’
And Juliet answer gently, ‘I forget.’
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